Five stress-busting daily habits to get you through exam season

The upsetting news that a fantastic teenager I know is suffering from panic attacks has spurred me to write this. I was shocked to hear from her that many schools still don’t provide basic guidance on how to take care of yourself through the trials of exams. I thought things would have progressed since I was a stressed-out teenager..

So here’s my twenty years of research on stress management in the workplace, boiled down to five simple habits.  If you apply these habits most days, you will feel calm and focused – and get better results:

  1. Move. When the revision workload is overwhelming, it’s easy to believe we should be studying every waking minute. In fact, the science shows that we are dramatically more productive after exercise. Even if it’s just a twenty minute walk or a ten minute dance or HITT workout:  Any movement is beneficial in reducing the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline in your bloodstream. Any movement will make your brain work better for the rest of the day. If you need some scientific proof, check out Tom Rath’s research brilliantly summarised in his book Eat Move Sleep.
  2. Sleep. The evidence is clear – to do our best work, we must get enough good quality sleep. When we don’t get the sleep we need, the body compensates by over-producing cortisol.  Cortisol provides a short term energy boost, but too much of it leads to the feeling of being wired (or ‘overtired’ as my mum calls it) and ironically is one of the most common physical factors behind insomnia.  So you need to prioritise getting enough sleep and avoid the temptation to use night time for revision. Having an organised, realistic study timetable really helps with this. If you’re having trouble sleeping, you need to give yourself at least 2 hours before bed to wind down and not think about work. It’s important to avoid screens or devices in this time too, even when they’re not work-related, as the blue light from screens interferes with the body’s ability to relax and prepare for sleep.
  3. Laugh. According to my brilliant friend and colleague the neuroscientist Dr Tara Swart, laughter and hugs are the fastest way to reduce cortisol and the best way to wind down in the evening. Give yourself permission to unwind and have fun at the end of each day of study.
  4. Connect. Neuroscientists have shown that looking into someone’s eyes and feeling listened to, even if only for a few minutes, has a hugely beneficial effect on our blood chemistry. It’s good to talk.  Ideally in person, without screens present, for the reasons outlined above.
  5. Avoid caffeine. I remember finding the buzz I got from coffee and caffeine tablets quite amusing as a teenager studying for GCSEs. My friends and I thought it helped us focus and get more done – and perhaps it did in the very short term. However what I’ve since learned about caffeine explains why I also developed a long term problem with insomnia and anxiety at that time: caffeine stimulates the body’s production of stress hormones. That means if you ever have any sleep problems or anxiety: step away from the caffeine.   Just because some people can use caffeine without damaging themselves doesn’t mean we all can – over twenty years later I still have to be super careful about my caffeine intake.  It’s a drug, and what goes up must come down.